Wednesday, 1 September 2021
National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Amendment Bill 2021; Second Reading
In my comments on the National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Amendment Bill 2021, I'm going to focus on just a few matters.
This legislation makes several improvements to the Redress Scheme in response to the two-year review of the scheme itself—a review that I believe was very necessary, given that it was a new scheme and that there would have been, understandably, changes required as the administration of the scheme was rolled out. The improvements in this legislation are indeed welcome, but they simply don't go far enough. As the member for Newcastle quite rightly pointed out, there have been some three previous reports with respect to this matter, all of which have raised deficiencies in the current scheme and the administration of it. Indeed, even with respect to this review, where there were some 38 recommendations, not all of them were adopted in this legislation, and nor were many other good suggestions that have been made by both this side of the House and other stakeholders.
The Redress Scheme was initiated by Labor under the Gillard government, in terms of the original royal commission which ultimately led to it. I have no doubt that it was something that not only was well overdue but would have brought a great deal of hope to all of those people who were in institutional care and who had, in some way or another, been violated. To now, after a royal commission, delay improvements that are needed, that have been exposed and that have been identified by the review itself simply draws out the suffering, the anxiety and the trauma of all of those people.
The redress recipients, in my view—and I suspect in the view of all people in this place, based on the comments that I have heard to date with respect to the scheme—have in many cases been living with their trauma for decades. This whole process was initiated in recognition of that and in recognition of the hurt and pain that had been caused to them. And it was about finally bringing to them not only some recognition but some restitution for what they had endured. So, that being the objective, let us, the parliament, now not further delay but instead move quickly to bring some comfort to those very people. In recognition of that delay, I say not only does it cause further hurt but I suspect that in some cases it may even cause an attitude of, 'I'm just hitting my head against a brick wall and I will simply not pursue this matter any further, because to do so just continues to agitate and relive the trauma that I have lived through.' That would be the last thing that we would want to do to the very people that I think we all would agree have suffered enough.
The key change in this legislation is the provision of an advance payment of $10,000 to vulnerable applicants, those being the elderly and perhaps people with a severe health issue, and to provide that $10,000 payment whilst their applications are being assessed. I think that is a good start, but what I hope it doesn't do is simply give people $10,000 as a way of saying, 'Now you can go away and leave us alone.' I suspect that, in some cases, if it gets too difficult for them, that's exactly what they might do. I would hope that this is not going to be the case and that, in fact, the $10,000 will be given in good faith and that their applications are then properly pursued, with all of the support that they might need to do that. So there is that $10,000 payment, along with some other adjustments in the legislation, which I have read through but will not go through in detail, because I think the payment is the most significant of them all. That leaves out some 20 other sensible suggestions that have been made with respect to the administration of the Redress Scheme; those suggestions are simply not picked up.
In his second reading speech, the minister stated that the government's final response to all of the review's recommendations would be provided in early 2022. Early 2022 is the period when we are very likely going to be having an election. So the reality of that statement is that this issue is going to be pushed down the track, and I don't think anyone in this House would know when it is likely to be dealt with. In other words, it is very unlikely that any of those other recommendations will see the light of day in the foreseeable future. I believe that is wrong, given that those recommendations were made in good faith, they are before the government, they are before the parliament, and we should be dealing with them now.
For victims of this abuse, even dealing with the application process would be incredibly traumatic and difficult. I know that because I've actually spoken with several victims. For victims with a disability or a language problem or for a First Nations person, the process would be even more difficult, and we need to do something to make that process much easier for them. I accept that some support measures might be available out there, but they are simply not enough. We should make sure that they are given every bit of support they need to follow through with applications that they need to make. Likewise, with respect to counselling—and that is one of the other matters that have been raised—lifelong counselling should be made available to victims. Having identified that they are victims, having accepted that they are victims, there's no doubt in my mind that those people will require that support for the rest of their lives.
The reality is that reviewing the criteria and the process should be an ongoing thing because different matters arise at all stages of that process. I will give one example of that, concerning one case where I spoke to the victim. The person was already in receipt of some compensation from the institution or the organisation where the abuse occurred. That organisation was one of the first to join the Redress Scheme, but, after it joined the Redress Scheme, the criteria under which that person's payments were assessed changed. The assessment process undertaken originally by the organisation was much more generous and much fairer than the assessment process under the scheme. So the person has actually gone backwards, in terms of missing out on support that might have otherwise been available, because the organisation, quite rightly, joined the scheme but the government's assessment criteria are inferior to those of the organisation. Things like that should never be allowed to happen, because, had the scheme never come in, that person would be in a better position today. I've raised that matter with government, but it seems that we are locked into the assessment process that we currently have. In that case, as I say, the person involved was actually denied the support that they would otherwise have received.
In another matter, earlier this year I put a question on notice to the minister in respect of those organisations that had not joined the Redress Scheme. I thank the minister for his reply to that, which I received recently. The reply said that organisations that had not joined the scheme had until the end of the third quarter to do so. The particular organisation that had not joined at the time and about which I had spoken to victims about their experiences was the Jehovah's Witnesses. I asked the minister again: has that organisation now joined the scheme? In the answer, the minister said that the organisation was in the process of doing so. But I'm still not clear whether they have, and I would like to think that the government would like to know, given that the Prime Minister standing at that dispatch box made it clear that any organisation that didn't join the scheme would lose their DGR status. I would certainly appreciate an update with respect to that matter because I know that there are people within that organisation who are victims and who are finding it extremely difficult to seek redress for a whole range of reasons, which I outlined in another contribution on this matter that I made earlier this year or late last year.
Finally, the people that are directly affected by the Redress Scheme, the victims, are people that not only I but other members in this place have met with, and there are many stories that we can tell. They have all suffered in silence and their lives have been profoundly changed as a result of their experiences. In many cases, that experience was whilst they were in the care of people who were entrusted with actually protecting and looking after them but didn't. They now carry that trauma and that injustice each and every day of their lives.
The royal commission also exposed all of that. We hear very compassionate and understanding words from members opposite and from the government itself. Those words need to be matched by real action. Regrettably, that is not always the case. It reminds me very much of the words about defence veterans we often hear in this place, which, equally, are not always matched by the actions of the government. They become empty words and, quite rightly, leave people feeling even angrier and more hurt than they previously were.
So I say to the government: you have done the right thing. You have reviewed the scheme, and you have the recommendations before you. You should be listening to the words of the people and the organisations that are involved with the scheme. You should be taking on board the concerns that have been raised and the proposals that are being made in order to make the scheme even better. The people who were the victims deserve that, and it's up to the government to deliver on it.